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Breaking Badly: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about Adverbs

In 1901, Cornelis Stoffel penned an incredibly gripping book wherein riveting information on adverbs such as rather – the “apologetic adverb” – very, quite, purely, and the like can be found. In 2005, a similar project was taken on by a University of Toronto linguistics student and his professor. The student had the “task” of watching nearly 200 episodes of Friends, and he recorded every adjective and accompanying adverb. The information compiled was very complex, and the results were so interesting. Only a super-dee-duper geeky grammar nerd would appreciate that study.

I feel confident you’ll read that later. For now, let’s review: adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.

Adverbs are used to describe when, in what way (or how), and to what extent. For example, I drive quickly, not badly. “Quickly” and “badly” are both adverbs describing “in what way” I do (or don’t) drive – “drive” is the action verb. Incidentally, if you are in a hurry, you DO want to carpool with me.

Adverbs are special but confusing. Look at the adverb “badly.” Would you say, “I smell badly?” Well, I suppose if you have an olfactory issue, and your sense of smell is dysfunctional, you would say, “I smell badly.” Although, my recommendation would be to clearly explain that your sense of smell isn’t operating up-to-snuff.

Further, you might say, “I smell bad” if you just completed a marathon in the Texas heat and had yet to shower. So, both “badly” and “bad” are correct, but both are NOT adverbs. (“Badly” is an adverb, and “bad” is an adjective.)

Here’s another example of the correct use of the word “bad” from an article about the connection between stress and sense of smell: Michael Todd writes, “The environment smells bad in the context of anxiety.” In this situation, “smell” is a linking verb (not an action verb) and is modified by the adjective “bad” instead of the adverb “badly” – sit down adverb; you’re on the bench for this one.

But, be careful because verbs involving the senses (feel, taste, smell, look) can be action verbs OR linking verbs. And, IF they are linking verbs, you will use an adjective to modify. For example, “The steak tastes bad.” We know the steak does not have the ability to taste anything; therefore we are dealing with a linking verb instead of an action verb, and the adjective “bad” is the correct choice.

Here are a couple more examples:

“I see badly.”

  • This is correct if you are relaying the way your eyes are functioning. (In this sentence, “see” is an action verb.)

“I feel bad.”

  • This is correct if you are relaying a feeling or a state-of-being. (In this sentence, “feel” is a linking verb.)

Easy Recap:

  • Action Verbs (like “drive” or “see”) are modified by adverbs (like “quickly” or “badly”)
  • Linking Verbs (state-of-being verbs like “feel”) are modified by adjectives (like “bad”) – smell the difference? If you don’t, it may indicate a high level of stress.



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